CORRECTION: An early version of this story incorrectly stated that the operation involved the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In fact, it was conducted by the state Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services.
SCHENECTADY — Clergy are angry after state and federal authorities used the private parking lot of a historically Black church to execute a raid late Wednesday.
A staffer at Mt. Olivet at Missionary Baptist Church noticed unusual activity when monitoring remote surveillance cameras.
Upon arriving at the church shortly after 10 p.m., plainclothes officers told the staffer they were law enforcement, which prompted Rev. Horace Sanders, Jr. to call city Police Chief Eric Clifford.
After a few phone calls, Sanders was informed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was executing a search warrant. It was later determined that the operation was conducted by the state Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services with assistance from the U.S. Postal Service.
Officials were on scene until after midnight, including a city Fire Department crew.
Sanders is upset over the lack of communication.
In a time of heightened racial tensions sparked by police killings of unarmed Black people, the incident could have ended in tragedy if a federal agent misidentified someone associated with the church, he said.
“I’m concerned about the strained relationship between African-Americans and the law enforcement community at this time,” Sanders said. “When they’re moving around under the cloak of darkness, with no uniforms and identification, that leaves so much room for something to happen.”
Tensions were heightened by their lack of identification, Sanders said.
Sanders said Mt. Olivet would have granted permission to use their lot if asked.
Doing so also would have quelled fears of an innocent bystander or staff member getting ensnared in the operation, he said.
“Mistaken identity is something that can easily happen,” Sanders said. “This could have easily gone the wrong way if there was a misunderstanding.”
Sanders said while he has a good relationship with the city Police Department, he wants local officials to be more transparent, potentially alerting residents to be aware of federal authorities in their neighborhoods.
“These things are happening right here in the city of Schenectady and Schenectady County,” Sanders said.
Clergy Against Hate shares his concerns.
“We need to be especially transparent about these things at a moment when there’s so much fear in the local community,” said Rev. Dustin Wright.
Clifford said he has spoken with Sanders.
The chief said he was alerted to the operation only after it was underway, and city police involvement was limited to one member of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“It was not a Schenectady Police Department operation,” Clifford said.
Sean Walls lives on Wendell Avenue next to the two-family home that was raided and watched unmarked cars gather all evening.
“They were all unmarked black SUVS, mostly,” Walls said.
Walls saw first responders leave the house with jars filled with yellow liquid he described as resembling pickle juice.
Afterward, he watched a hazmat team dump the jars into large blue barrels.
Walls approached the workers over concerns that he could be at risk of chemical exposure, but was provided few details.
“There are chemicals being disposed of,” Walls recalled.
Walls said he seldom saw the downstairs occupants, who he said moved into the home roughly six months ago.